Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Recipe of the Month: crêpes for La Chandeleur

Here's a reprint from a few years ago, to mark today:  February 2nd - La Chandeleur.

Although Paris is rarely as cold as Michigan, or even as other parts of France, the City of Light is resolutely grey and damp during the winter months.  Parisians are eager for any scrap of light or warmth.
     Enter la Fête de la Chandeleur.  February 2.
     As with so many feast days, this one has two sides to its story:  a Christian one and a pagan one.  Unlike the chicken and the egg, we know which came first.
     Let’s attack the subject backwards.  The Christian holy day commemorates Mary bringing Jesus to the synagogue 40 days after his birth, as Leviticus required, him being the first-born son.  Later, the 14th century Catholic church linked this day to the Purification of Mary on February 2nd.  In both cases, candles were used to keep Evil at bay.  But that’s Chapter 2.  Let’s flip back to Chapter 1:  the pagans.
     In France, the Fête de la Chandeleur is celebrated with crêpes.  And therein lies the link to the pagan side of the feast day.  Pagans worshiped the Sun.  Especially in the middle of winter, when cold winds blew and the sky was perpetually grey and it seemed like the Sun would never shine again to warm Mother Earth and breathe life back into Nature.  The Celts held a festival on the first of February where they walked through the fields, torches held high, asking the goddess of fertility to purify the earth and make it fruitful.  To bring back the Sun.  And what could better represent the Sun than a crêpe?  It’s round.  It’s pale yellow.  It’s warm.  And it’s nourishing.
     Other pagans held a Festival of the Bear, which came out of hibernation around this time, much like Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog who comes out - also on February 2nd - to see whether spring is here yet.  They, too, felt early February was a good date for a sun festival.  So there was already a long tradition of a feast day around this season when the Christians started to proselytize.
     Winter.  Cold.  Dormant nature.  Lore mixed and melded with religion.  Out of it came a symbol that everyone, even the poorest, could adopt.  And the winner was the lowly crêpe.

If you want to perpetuate the tradition - or just enjoy a mouthful of paper-thin sweetness, here’s the recipe, (although every mother has her own to hand down to her children):

1 cup flour
3 T butter
2 cups milk
3 eggs
2 T water
1 T rum or vanilla (or lemon or orange zest)
4 T sugar
pinch of salt

- Heat the milk to a boil.  Take it off the burner and add the butter.  Leave it to cool.
- Put the flour in a large bowl.  Make a “well” in the center of the flour and break the eggs into the well, one by one.  Whisk thoroughly.
- Add the pinch of salt and the sugar, then the water, then the flavoring (or zest).  Slowly whisk in the cooled milk.  The batter should have no lumps.  If it does, just strain them out.
- Let the batter sit in the refrigerator for an hour.

Now you’re ready to get down to business. Take an 8" frying pan (non-stick helps) and melt a little nugget of butter.  When it starts to sizzle, pour in just a ladleful of batter.  Make sure the crêpe is almost paper thin. Wiggle the pan around to fill in any holes.  As soon as the edges turn golden and bubbles form and start to pop - which is just about immediately - work it free with a spatula and flip it for just the few seconds it takes to finish up that side.  Sprinkle plain sugar over the top - or spread jam or Nutella... or dribble on a bit of Grand Marnier - and fold the crêpe in half and then in half again.  Eat it while it’s piping hot.
You can make a stack of crêpes ahead of time and keep them warm in the oven.  Then fold them as you serve them up.
  But the French like to all gather around the stove and watch the show.  Especially as the trick is to flip them, not with the spatula, but with a flick of the wrist.  If you manage to flip your crêpe without dropping it on the floor or sticking it to the ceiling, and if you do it with a coin in your other hand (traditionally a louis d’or, but I doubt if you have any of those laying about), then you’ll have good fortune for the entire year.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Bonne Année et bonne santé

Happy New Year and good health!  That’s what that means.
It’s what you hear as soon as people sober up from their New Year’s Eve festivities (La fête de Saint-Sylvestre), which are monumental, especially gastronomically.  For fear of losing your French nationality, you must start with oysters and then move on to other equally rich things, all washed down with the appropriate wine and finishing with champagne.  And chocolates.

A few days after New Year’s, the sweetness starts again on January 6th.
     Even if you get your lords a-leaping confused with your geese a-laying (but still always chime in on the “five gold rings” part), you know about the Twelve Days of Christmas.  But do you know what it means?  It starts the day after Christmas and runs for twelve days, ending purportedly in the day the Three Wise Men - aka Magi - arrived at the manger in Bethlehem bringing gold and frankincense and myrrh.  (Extra points if you can name all three kings.)
     To mark that day with a pastry (it is France, after all), French bakers invented the galette des rois - or if you’re in the south of France the brioche des rois (basically the same thing but with with a brioche base instead of puff pastry).  Unless you drink a lot of champagne or tea with it, the plain galette can be dry, so personally I always buy a galette fourrée à la frangipane - puff pastry with almond paste inside.
     Also inside is a fève - once a dried broad bean, but more often now a ceramic figurine which can range from one of those Three Wise Men themselves to Mickey Mouse to... oh, just about anything.  (This year I got a kind of tiny ceramic rolling pin that opened up and had a miniature recipe for clafoutis, a delicious custard dessert with cherries on top.)  French dentists have erected a monument to the fève, because unsuspecting victims have broken many a tooth on it, thereby ensuring their livelihood.  Should no dental catastrophe ensue, the person who finds the fève is declared the king  of queen and given a golden cardboard crown to wear.  (It comes with the galette.)  Sometimes they’re supposed to buy the next galette, but that may be the baker’s ploy; other times they just get to kiss everybody.
     The brioche des rois is indigenous to the south of France, and is fashioned in a semi-circle, reputedly to mimic the turbans of the Magi.  The candied fruit on top is just to brighten up a long winter’s day by adding a bit of color... and to sucker children into eating it.  (It’s similar to the Italian panettone, which had always been by far too dry for me until a smart friend told me to make it as French toast, and now I love it!)

But the New Year is more than just pastry.
     First of all, French people don’t send Christmas cards.  Perhaps that’s left over from the concept of it’s being a religious festival and all minds should be on God.  For whatever reason, cards are sent, but later, to wish a happy new year.  They can be sent any time during the month of January, but I’m convinced that the date on which you send them is perceived by the French as an indication of what kind of person you are.  (Do you procrastinate?  Or are you the timely sort?)  The French can be very judgmental.  And of course you must add a little handwritten message, although those typically American “yearly state of the union” enclosures are not required.

And then there’s the Bonne Année handshake/kiss (depending on how well you know the other person).  Ah yes.  This is the true New Year’s test of French-ness.
     The rule is that you must wish a Happy New Year to everyone around you - not only family and friends but also anyone with whom you have dealings, even on a customer/shopowner basis.  If you do a quick mental calculation of how many people you interact with in your daily routine, you’ll see that wishing them all Happy New Year can be daunting.
     And you must do it only once, because to wish them Happy New Year a second time just proves that a) you weren’t paying attention the first time around, b) they personally don’t merit being remembered as already having been greeted, c) you didn’t mean it when you said it, d) all of the above.
     If you live here year-round, especially in a small community, it’s easy to keep track of who has been Bonne Année-d.  If you start on January 1st, you may have a good chance of not giving double-greetings.  But if you live in Paris, things can get iffy, given the number of people involved.  And if you live in Paris only part-time, as I do, and so you start The Greeting Process part-way into the month... Well, to say you’re walking on eggshells is putting it lightly.
     Just this morning (Jan. 17th), I went into the neighborhood five-and-dime/hardware shop, run by a nice Asian gentlemen originally from La Réunion, one of France’s overseas states (think Hawaii).  I go in there several times a year, and I talk with the man each time.  But still I’m far from a weekly customer who boosts his sales greatly.  He greeted me with a big smile, came out from behind the counter, his hand outstretched, and said “Bonne année, Madame, et bonne santé”.  With all the people who come through his shop, how did he remember he hadn’t seen me, in particular, yet this year?
     And it’s been the same thing with all the other shops.  The butcher, the wine merchant, the newstand...  Of course, maybe my periodic disappearances and reappearances make me stand out.  Still, this is an acquired skill.  I’m getting quite good at it myself after all these years.
     Or perhaps there’s a bonne année neuron in the brain and I've managed to turn it on.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Recipe of the Month: Brioche des rois

In France, Christmas is traditionally when family gets together around a table.  Friends gather to ring in the new year with a meal on La Saint Sylvestre, the feast day of St. Sylvester.  And what a feast it is!  Oysters, smoked salmon, foie gras, whole poached fish, roast meat, salad, cheese, dessert... not to mention champagne and wine!
     After all that, you swear you’ll never eat again, but by the time Epiphany rolls around on January 6, the gluttony has started to wear off.  What’s more, les rois mages are a tradition.  And who’s going to argue with tradition?
     Epiphany is also called Twelfth Day - think “partridge in a pear tree” - because it comes twelve days after Christmas.  The word is Greek for “appearance” and it marks the supposed date when les rois mages, the Magi, the Three Kings, appeared in Bethlehem.  Legend says the white-bearded Melchior was from Persia and brought gold.  The much younger Gaspar brought frankincense, which comes from southern Arabia, and especially Oman.  Finally, the dark-complected Balthasar offered myrrh, which is native to Africa’s Somalia and Ethiopia.  Combine that with Bethlehem in Palestine and you’ve pretty much covered the known world of Biblical times.  If you look at it in that light, this Christian feast takes on a more global aspect.
     So, whether wise men or kings, on January 6th, French bakeries blossom with galettes des rois, a thin pastry, often with almond paste filling and looking like a loaf of Middle Eastern unleavened bread.  Or with brioches des rois, a specialty of southern France.  In each you will find hidden a bean, or fève, which over the years has become a little ceramic figurine.  When the galette or brioche is sliced, the youngest person present hides under the table and dictates which slice is given to which person.  The one who finds the figurine - hopefully without breaking a tooth on it - is declared the king/queen, given a shiny gold crown and selects someone else to wear a second crown.
     To help you ring in the new year, here’s a recipe for brioche des rois that I got from Chef Patrick Mesiano.  Yes, it does take some time in the kitchen but you can turn it into a game, especially if children are involved.  They love to get their hands all floury.  And if you have some aggression to work out or need to burn off some Christmas calories, kneading is just the thing.
     So as 2008 begins, let me wish you all amour et amitié, santé et prospérité - love and friendship, health and wealth - throughout the coming year.
Bon appétit!

  • 3 T candied fruit, cut small 
  • 1/4 c currants
  • 1/4 c pine nuts, toasted
  • zest of 1 small lemon, finely minced
  • 1 T dark rum
  • 1 T orange blossom water
  • 8.8 oz or 1 3/4 c (250 g) flour
  • 10 g yeast (1½ packet of dry yeast)
  • 3 T granulated sugar
  • 5 T butter, cut up & softened
  • 4 eggs
  • salt

The night before baking, toast the pine nuts for a few minutes in the oven or in a heavy skillet (without any oil).
Wash the lemon and remove the zest with a zester or a peeler, being careful not to cut deeply, as the white skin underneath will give a bitter taste.  Mince the zest finely.
In a bowl, mix the pine nuts and zest with the candied fruit and currants.
Add the dark rum and orange blossom water.  Stir.
Cover with saran wrap and leave in the refrigerator overnight (or at least 30 min).

For the brioche:

Using an electric mixer with a flat beater (dough hook), mix together the sifted flour, a pinch of salt, the sugar, yeast and 3 eggs.  If using cake yeast, crumble it and be careful that the yeast doesn’t remain in contact with the sugar before it’s mixed in or else the dough will be “burned”.
Mix at low speed until the dough comes away from the bowl (about 10 min).  If you mix at too high a speed, the ingredients will emulsify.
Cut the softened butter into small pieces and add in, kneading for another 10 min at low speed, until the dough again comes away from the bowl.
Then add the candied fruit with its juice and mix for about 30 seconds.
Take the dough out of the mixer and put it in a bowl.  Cover and let rise for 30 min.  It should double in volume.

Sprinkle some flour on your hands so the dough won’t stick when handling.  Gently fold the dough over several times, tucking the sides under to get rid of any air.  It should return to about the same size that it was before.
Cover again and leave in the refrigerator for ½ hr until it’s firm enough to shape.

Sprinkle flour over a working surface and roll the dough into a “log” about the diameter of a rolling pin..
Cut the log in half, then each half in three, to make 6 equal pieces.
Roll each piece into a ball.
Flatten each ball slightly, then place one by one in a buttered round mold to form a crown.
Cover and let rise for 1½ hr at room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).  A convection oven is best.

Beat an egg, add a pinch of salt, beat again, then use a brush to coat the top of the brioche so it will turn golden.
Cook for 30-35 min.
Let stand for 5 min, then unmold.
Slip the fève into the brioche from the bottom so no one will see where it is.

  • Optional:   Ice with apricot preserves and decorate with pieces of candied fruit.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Recipe of the Month: Petit-gris de charente en surprise

December.  Another whole year gone by!  It never failed to catch me unprepared.  Just barely recovered from Thanksgiving - complete with taking the door off the hinges to seat all the guests in my Paris apartment - and it was already time to think of special dishes for the end-of-year festivities!
     Typically, Christmas dinner in France is a family affair; friends are invited for la Saint-Sylvestre, New Year’s Eve.  Christmas dinner used to be enjoyed after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, but it’s now often slipped over into Christmas Day.  The typical menu is roast turkey - or goose - with chestnut stuffing, followed by a bûche de Noël.
     For those of you who aren’t really fond of the traditional foie-gras or oyster appetizers, this recipe is simple yet special.  The only hard part is scooping out the inside of a cooked potato.  It’s typically French in its ingredients, which I’ve left as Chef Jacques Cagna dictated for those of you actually cooking in France.  The shrimp he uses are petit-gris, a variety that I haven’t seen in America, but which can be replaced by tiny cocktail shrimp, or even larger shrimp cut into small pieces.
     Another of the ingredients is anisette, which is easy to find in most French homes, especially in Provence.  This adds another layer to the dish, a special je ne sais quoi, and makes it more festive.  If it’s hard to find or expensive, you can always use sambucca or ouzo.  Or even some anise extract, which you can find in almost any grocery store.
     Cagna also uses grenaille potatoes, which are small and smooth skinned.  I’ve replaced them here by red potatoes because of their cheerful red color but more especially because they hold up under cooking and will cause less problems when you try to hollow them out.
     So, before Santa and his reindeer land on your roof... to your stoves!  And Joyeux Noël!

  • 8 grenaille or 4 medium-sized red potatoes 
  • 6 T unsalted butter
  • 1 T parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 3 hazelnuts/walnuts, finely chopped
  • 1 small tsp anisette or anise extract
  • 24 petits-gris or tiny cocktail shrimp
  • salt, freshly ground pepper

- Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water.
- When they’re cooked, cut a thin slice lengthwise off the bottom so the potato lays flat.  Then slice off the top.
- Carefully remove most of the inside.  (As a precaution, cook a few extra, just in case.)  Keep the cooked potato for other uses, for example a potato frittata or to add to a spinach and bacon salad..
- While the potatoes are cooking, mix the butter, parsley, shallot and garlic in a food processor.
- By hand, blend in the nuts (optional), then the anisette.
- Season to taste with salt and freshly-ground pepper.
- Into each potato shell, put three petit-gris shrimp (or several shrimp or shrimp pieces).
- Top with a dollop of the butter mix.  For a pretty finish, use a pastry bag.
- Bake in the oven at 350°F for 10 minutes.

Serve with a chilled dry white wine, such as a pouilly-fumé.  Serves 4.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Out and About: Exhibits: Osiris, Mystères engloutis d'Egypte

Priest holding Osiris
An old friend has suggested meeting at the Institut du Monde Arabe, the museum that specializes in All (Art) Things Arab.  And the subject of the particular exhibit she wants to see interests me greatly:  Ancient Egyptian artworks found underwater just off the delta of the Nile.
     There’s a bus that will drop me off directly in front of the museum, although it takes a very long time, given Paris traffic.  We manage to find each other in spite of my lateness, have a bite of Middle Eastern food at the museum’s café... and then we step into the darkness (perhaps a bit too much darkness) of the netherworld.

Pectoral of the sky, 10th c B.C.
“Osiris, the son of the Earth and the Sky was killed by his brother Seth, who cut his body into 14 pieces and threw them into the Nile.  Isis, sister and wife of Osiris, put the body of the god back together again using her magical powers, and conceived their son, Horus. Osiris then became the Lord of the Afterlife, and Horus, victorious against Seth, received Egypt as his heritage.”
goddess of the Nile
     That’s how the exhibit starts:  with an explanation of the gods revered, especially Osiris. My first thought was “Doesn’t that first line remind you a bit of the Bible?”  If you see the Earth as being Eve and the Sky as Adam (or vice versa), Osiris would become Abel and Seth would be Cain.  And there you have a parallel story of fratricide.
     That’s only one of the many thoughts I have while walking through this magnificent exhibit of the many wonders archaeologists have literally dredged up from the bottom of the Bay of Aboukir, where they’d lain for centuries.  Luckily, the delta muck actually preserved the artworks somewhat from the corrosiveness of the salty Mediterranean water.  But it took much painstaking work to remove all the algae, barnacles and other mollusks without damaging the artworks, as shown in several videos projected on the walls and in the small theater area complete with benches for those of us whose legs are getting tired.

The exhibition is made up of three sections. The first presents the myth of Osiris, and is guarded by a huge statue of Hapi, the god  of the annual flooding of the Nile.  The largest of the three parts is the second, which covers the archaeological sites and the ritual celebration of the mysteries of Osiris.  The final section shows how the ancient myth evolved over time and space, how it was adapted at different sites, which explains the diversity of the myth’s representations.
   Throughout, the lighting is minimal, which makes it hard to read the explanatory signs - although one of the guards said they would be pumping up the lighting a bit in a few days because they had so many complaints.  Still, the darkness accentuates the drama of the actual art pieces, which are spotlighted just right: easy to discern by leaving enough shadow to set off a statue’s inscriptions and features.
     In the footage taken underwater, you see how the artworks were discovered, then uncovered, and what difficult conditions the archaeologists had to work under.  Murky doesn’t even come close to describing the visibility the divers “enjoyed” as they carried out their underwater excavation five miles offshore at the Magnus-Alexandria, Canope and Thonis-Heracleion sites.  The last two of these sites stretched over an area of 7 x 6 miles (11 x 10 km), a gigantic undertaking when everything is covered by up to two millennia of sediment.  But magnetic and bathymetric (underwater topography) exploration equipment proved up to the task.
Apis, 2nd c A.D.

Hapi, 4th c B.C.
Why were all these masterpieces under water?  Because of natural catastrophes.  The delta region experienced earthquakes several times, some of them powerful enough to cause tidal waves.  And then there’s the annual flooding of the Nile, which was heavy some years.  There’s also the sheer weight of the buildings, given that some were constructed on clay soil, which provides a poor foundation.  In addition, the eastern Mediterranean has been sinking for centuries, and the level of the Mediterranean has been rising, a fact that will only continue with today’s trend toward global warming.  All this combined to cause catastrophes in the 2nd century BC, along with the 5th and especially late 8th centuries A.D.
     All these works are on loan from various museums of Egypt.  Seeing them together in one place is a gift, and also very powerful.  As my friend and I left, we were blinded by the Paris sun - something hard to do at this season of the year - our heads filled with splendid images and our minds raring to find out more about this fascinating topic.

Mystères engloutis d’Egypte

Institut du Monde Arabe
1 rue des Fossés-Saint-Bernard; 5è
Métro: Sully-Morland, Jussieu, Cardinal Lemoine

Until January 31, 2016
T-Th 10-7 / F 10-9:30 / Sat & Sun 10-8
Closed Mondays

15.50 & 12.50 €

Bérénice, 2nd c B.C.

Here’s the link to the show’s website.  http://www.exposition-osiris.com/index.php?lang=en
If it doesn’t come up in English, there’s a little US-UK flag you can click on to get it.

And here’s a link to an article on the discovery at Heracleion:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/environment/archaeology/10022628/Lost-city-of-Heracleion-gives-up-its-secrets.html

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Recipe of the Month: Lapin à la moutarde

All right.  I know I’m going to lose a lot of you here, but bear with me. This month’s recipe is lapin à la moutarde, otherwise known as rabbit with mustard.  To most Americans, the idea of eating a bunny, a poor little Peter Rabbit, is just too hard to bear.  My father was a hunter, so I grew up eating rabbit, pheasant and even squirrel (which does indeed have a nutty taste).  Wild rabbit, on the other hand, has a fines herbes taste, especially in France where the lapins de garenne of Provence thrive on the thyme and rosemary growing wild everywhere.  Unless you get your rabbit from a hunter, though, the rabbit you’ll find at the market is the farm-grown variety and far less “gamey”.  It tastes a bit like chicken.  Well, turkey actually.
     You may also be relieved to know that it is a lean meat.  Low in fat and cholesterol, high in protein, raised without hormones, usually containing no stimulants, additives or preservatives.  And it’s easily digested, which is why the American Heart Foundation and the American Medical Association recommend it for people on special diets.  Have I got your attention yet?
     One of the ingredients for this dish, crème fraîche, is something sold everywhere in France but seldom found on the shelves of American supermarkets, although you can usually find it in specialty stores.  Sour cream is too sour and can curdle when cooked.  Heavy cream is too thin. And neither gives the same result.  One solution is to heat (not boil) one cup of heavy cream and then mix it with 1 teaspoon of buttermilk and let it stand at room temperature until the mixture thickens (6 hours or more, depending on the room temperature).   Don’t worry about it going bad; this is how yoghurt is made.   But once it thickens, you have to refrigerate it; you can keep for up to a week.  Hint:  the rest of the buttermilk can be used for a wonderfully rich chocolate cake.  Second hint:  if you did find crème fraîche and didn’t use all of it, you’ll be happy to know that crème fraîche, unlike sour cream, can be beaten into whipped cream.

  • a 3-lb rabbit, cut in pieces
  • 3 T butter
  • 1 T peanut oil
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 3 minced shallots
  • 2 branches of fresh rosemary
  • 4 T Dijon mustard
  • 2 T crème fraîche 
  • 2 egg yolks
  • juice of ½ lemon

- Brown the rabbit pieces evenly in the oil and butter over fairly high heat.  (You can play around with the proportion of oil and butter to suit your tastes and diet, but using some butter will give a better flavor and the oil keeps the butter from going brown.)
- Lower the heat and add the rosemary, shallots, salt and pepper.  Simmer covered for about 30 minutes or until the meat is tender, adding a bit of liquid chicken stock or cognac if it goes dry before it’s thoroughly cooked.
- Remove the rosemary.
- Blend the Dijon mustard with the crème fraîche, egg yolks and lemon juice.  Mix well and pour over the rabbit.
- Simmer over very low heat for about 10 minutes, or until the sauce thickens slightly.

Serves 4.  Accompany with rice or boiled potatoes to make the most of the sauce.

You can see it’s an easy recipe:  only 5-10 minutes of preparation for 40 minutes cooking.  You can make it even easier by eliminating the egg yolk and lemon juice, but I think it has more layers of flavor this way.  Or you could make it more rustic by using a bit of moutarde à l’ancienne (the one with the mustard seed in it):  3 T Dijon to 1 T ancienne.  And don’t worry about it being too strong because cooking the mustard removes a lot of its “bite”.

Recommended wine:  a red burgundy (Savigny-les-Beaune) or a dry chablis if you prefer white

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Out & About: Exhibits - Splendeurs et Misères

One of my favorite museums in Paris is the Orsay Museum.  And there’s a good reason for that:  Impressionism.  Which I love.
     What’s more, I love the building that houses this museum:  the former Orsay railroad station, a Belle Epoque building of great beauty.  And as the Impressionist period basically corresponds to France’s Belle Epoque - usually defined as running from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914 - it’s very fitting that the Ministry of Culture, in its infinite wisdom, chose to repurpose this Belle Epoque edifice as the showplace of Impressionism.

Right now there’s a major art show at the Orsay:  Splendor and Misery - Images of Prostitution in France.  “Oh, those French,” I can hear you say.  “Trust them to put sex into an art show.”
     Well, not having a clear idea what a exhibit on such a topic would offer, I decided to go find out.  And I’m glad I did because, as with any major exhibit, there are artworks here that you will never see together in one place again.  Although the majority come from the Orsay’s own cache, along with quite a few from another Paris museum, the Carnavalet, there are also works from The Met in New York City, Chicago’s Art Institute, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and even one from Williamstown, Massachussets.  And as there are many works by Van Gogh, Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum has also sent many of its masterpieces to Paris for the event.

All French museums, including Orsay, like to explain to you what you’re seeing.  Although the lighting is dim to protect the artworks, you can read huge panels - in French with an excellent version in English - at the entrance to every room.  There are smaller ones for individual works, but they’re only in French, so perhaps you’d want to rent the audiocassettes*, which I think run only 5€.
     There are many interesting facts on these panels.  One speaks of “amours tarifiés”, a tongue-in-cheek definition of prostitution as “love at a price”.  The panel at the very start states that this theme of prostitution was exclusively a masculine realm.  No Suzanne Valadon or Berthe Morisot or Mary Cassatt here.   It goes on to say that this first section is a reflection of “the ambiguity of the era’s social situation”, “the burden of the feminine condition of modern times”.  And it adds something that could apply to our own era, more than a century later:  “In working-class circles, women who had modest jobs - such as manual workers, milliners, florists or laundresses - were too poorly paid to afford decent accommodations or feed themselves adequately, especially if they had a family to support. Some therefore occasionally resorted to prostitution to supplement their earnings.”  (I also learned that laws then prohibited soliciting during daylight, and thus the origin of the term “ladies of the night”.)
The Absinthe Drinker, Edgar Degas
     The artwork here includes many famous paintings that aren’t usually associated with prostitution.  But as Nice Women of the era didn’t frequent cafés, “The Absinthe Drinker” by Degas is part of the theme.  And as the dancers of the Paris Ballet also often sidelined as courtesans, the “Prima Ballerina” taking a bow, also by Degas, covers that side of the topic.  Toulouse-Lautrec is widely represented, given his fascination with both cafés and prostitutes; I saw are at least two that I’m very familiar with:  “At the Moulin Rouge” and “The Redhead”.  Manet’s most widely known masterpiece, Olympia, is usually thought of as a nude rather than specifically as a prostitute, but I guess there’s room for doubt so it also is there, along with a spoof of it - also called Olympia - by Manet’s old friend Cézanne, in which the setting is more obviously a brothel, complete with man in top hat, waiting.
     There are many different mediums in this first section, running the entire gamut:  pen-and-ink, gouache, pastels, oils, etchings and lithographs.

After several rooms focusing on women who might be plying their wares, either as a trade or as
Au Moulin Rouge, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
additional income off-hours, comes a narrow hallway decorated with wallpaper, floor to ceiling, depicting an old Paris street as seen in two photos in next room.  Those two photos show two of many brothels, and  the tone changes radically as of this point.  The rest of the exhibit focuses totally on love for sale, whether by a prostitute on the street or in a brothel, or by a courtesan, some of whom made a lot of money, married well and got out of the business.
     Display cases hold sheet music sold in the street - even in Edith Piaf’s time - illustrated by drawings by famous artists.  As some songs in those days were about the ladies of the night...
     To include a sociological viewpoint, there’s documentation on the jails where these women often ended up, or the hospitals where their syphilis and other venereal diseases were treated.  There’s even a side room, closed off with red velvet curtains with signs forbidding access to those under 18. As curious as ever, I went in, but soon left because porn films and photos, albeit from the Belle Epoque, aren’t my thing.  More interesting was the furniture and furnishings from the homes of those rich courtesans, although the style is  a bit too over-the-top for me,
     And I learned something I didn’t know:  that Picasso’s famous "Demoiselles d’Avignon" - which normally lives in New York’s MOMA - is not just a bunch of nude ladies with strange faces.  They’re not bathing in the Rhone River in Avignon, France, as I thought.  They’re waiting for clients at the Avignon Bordello in Barcelona.  Another illusion dashed. Guess I lead a sheltered life.
     It’s an interesting exhibit, if only for the first section.  You can go at your own speed, gloss over what you don’t enjoy and focus on what you do. Besides, there’s the entire rest of the museum to explore as well.  Not to mention lunch or tea in the Belle Epoque restaurant, with its beautiful brass and mirrors and all the rest of what goes with Belle Epoque décors. But be sure you get the right place; it’s located above the entrance and is not to be confused with the snack bar on the top floor.

P.S.  If you wonder what that lub-dub lub-dub sound is you hear and feel as you go through the lower rooms of the Orsay, it’s the trains rolling along the rails on the line running under the museum.

Splendeurs et Misères - Images of 
Prostitution in France (1850-1910)

Musée d’Orsay
1 rue de la Légion-d’Honneur; 7è
Métro:  Solférino, RER B Musée d’Orsay

Until January 17, 2016
T-Sun 9:30-6 / Th open until 9:45
Closed Mondays

11 & 8.50 €